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Dominican CultureInfluences | Music & dance | History of Merengue | Rum | Beer | Coffee | Tobacco | Food | Sports | Celebrities
Dominicans are known for their friendliness, hospitality, permanent smiles and for not becoming stressed under any circumstance. Their life style is definitely very different from those of the more industrialized countries. The culture is markedly characterized by the joy of life of its people, which is expressed principally through the great importance placed on music, dance, and all things related to parties and celebrations: Particular foods and cooking styles, rum, beer, coffee and cigars are other important symbols of identity.
Dominican culture is a rich and dynamic symbiosis of different influences. Among the most important are the Indigenous (Taino), African and Spanish. A process of transculturalization occurred during the colonial era of Hispaniola in which the Spanish, Indigenous and black African populations mixed producing a new Creole culture. The census of 1514 reports that 40 percent of the Spanish males had Taino wives; and there were also interactions between the Africans and the Tainos, principally on the plantations and the mixed communities where runaways hid in the most remote areas of the island.
The major Taino contribution is found, without a doubt, in language. There is a multitude of Taino words and expressions (translated here to English usage where appropriate), such as canoe, hurricane, hammock, crocodile, barbeque, tobacco, maraca, iguana, manatee, mabi (a root based soft drink), macuto (a type of back pack), and the popular phrase “un chin” or “chin chin” which means “a little”. Other Taino legacies include: fishing techniques, basket making and the cultivation of a number of root crops that still in the present day form part of the Dominican diet.
The remnants of African cultures are found in various aspects of music, dance, folk religious beliefs, cuisine, entertainment, language, etc. Nonetheless, maybe the major influence from the African slave is found in musical rhythms and dance. The music and dance de palos (“of the sticks”) is the most renowned African expression in Dominican culture, with percussion instruments similar the Brazilian drum and the maraca and dances and ritual dances which imitate the dance of the ostrich, the giraffe, and the monkey are still present today. Dominican cuisine contains ingredients and dishes of African origin, such as the pigeon pea, plantain and a number of recipes based on this staple. A popular beverage for the African slaves was guarapo, the juice extracted from fresh sugar cane.
The Spanish contributed the official language and religion, as well as colonial architecture, aspects of governmental organization and formal education.
In addition to these influences those of other cultures and nationalities that have arrived to the island more recently must be added, such as Arab (Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians), Asian
Merengue is the Dominican rhythm par excellence and is one of the most popular Latin rhythms in the world. Among today’s most important merengue performers are Los Hermanos Rosario, Fernando Villalona, Rubby Pérez, Sergio Vargas, Milly Quesada, Toño Rosario, Eddy Herrera and the internationally renowned and pride of the Dominicans, Juan Luis Guerra. The latter is also the great promoter on the world level of bachata, another Dominican rhythm that has experienced a surge in popularity in the last decade. This genre’s most well known representatives internationally are Frank Reyes and Aventura.
Another performer in Dominican music to mention is Chichí Peralta, who has always gone beyond the conventional. He has revolutionized Latin rhythm through the fusion of son and jazz, merengue with pop music, and mixing African, Brazilian and Arab styles. He has even introduced exotic instruments from India to his music.
Truthfully little is known about the origin of merengue. Some students of the subject attribute Haitian roots to the rhythm. Others note its beginnings in the mid 19th century when between 1838 and 1849 a dance called “UPA” or UPA Habanera (Havana UPA) spread through the Caribbean due to its great acceptance. This dance has a movement known as “merengue” and it appears that this was the term that was chosen to name the style. In just a few years it became the boom in the Dominican Republic and displaced other dances such as the Tumba that required greater physical and mental agility. The reduced and simple choreography definitely contributed to conquer the fervor of the masses. In 1850 Colonel Alfonseco wrote some of the first Dominican pieces of the new music with popular titles like "¡Ay, Coco!", "El sancocho", (Oh, Coconut, Sancocho), "El que no tiene dos pesos no baila", (He who doesn’t have two pesos doesn’t dance) y "Huye Marcos Rojas que te coge la pelota" (Run, Marcos Rojas, the ball will get you).
However, the Dominican high class did not accept merengue for a long time because of its presumed relationship with African music and because of the glaring lyrics that its songs generally contained. There were reactions against it as in 1875 when Ulises Francisco Espaillat began a campaign across the countryside that turned out to be futile. The dance had already taken over the Cibao (central region of the country) and extended throughout the rural areas as it dazzled everyone with its simple and joyful rhythm.
During the Trujillo dictatorship beginning in 1930 and assisted by the development of radio, merengue spread to the areas where it was unknown. Nonetheless, it was not completely accepted within the Dominican high class until an aristocratic family from Santiago contracted the singer, Luís Alberti, a merengue with “decent” lyrics to be played at one of its parties. The song was named “Compadre Pedro Juan” and caused a real craze among those in attendance. Starting at this moment merengue was accepted by all strata of Dominican society and began to appear in different variants, such as “merengue de salon” which was the most widespread, relegating the authentic, folkloric merengue to the rural sector.
The Dominican Republic is one of the world’s major producers of sugar cane, and the production of this alcoholic beverage, which comes from the distillation of molasses ( a thick sugar cane syrup), was initiated together with the introduction of the crop to the island almost 500 years ago.
Three principal families have dominated the rum industry throughout history and still today continue increasing and improving their production in order to satisfy the ever greater and more discerning international demand.
Bermúdez, the oldest distiller of Dominican rum was founded in 1852. Brugal, presently considered the most popular brand, was founded in Puerto Plata in 1888. Barceló, is possibly the preferred brand of the most discerning, especially its version Barceló Imperial. The company was founded in Santo Domingo in 1930. Mamajuana is also a traditional alcoholic beverage that is produced with rum and to which Dominicans attribute aphrodisiacal and curative powers. The most common variety is “mamajuana de palos” (“sticks mamajuana”) that consists of filling an empty bottle with various roots and pieces of bark (sticks as they are called). The ingredients are then “cured” by adding to the bottle of sticks red wine, rum and honey to taste until the bottle is filled. After 7 to 10 days the liquid is drained (leaving the sticks in the bottle), and it is filled again with your favorite rum. At this time it is ready to drink. It is important to note that the roots and barks will slowly lose their initial bitterness and leave the characteristic delicate and smooth aroma and flavor.
For Dominicans it is always a good time to open a beer, or “una fria” (“a cold one”) in popular slang. Presidente beer, produced in Santo Domingo, is without a doubt the country’s most popular. Nonetheless, its principal rivals are Bohemia and Brahma, also produced in the country. The former is a Pilsner style beer, very smooth and light with a refined flavor, light color and in spite of the fact that it contains six percent alcohol it won’t be felt as long as you are sitting. It is served very, very cold. Residents only drink it if it is “vestida de novia” (“dressed as the bride”), as it is called when the bottle is covered with a layer of frost.
Due to the great success of this beer also among tourists, presently it can easily be found in many parts of Europe and North America.
Our country is a great producer of coffee and it is considered one of the best in Latin America. There are over 3,400,000 hectares of coffee plants in the country. The majority produce Arabic coffee, principally of the Barahona variety which is acidic and with good body and aroma; and also the Cibao Altura variety. The national production is consumed through the high internal consumption and exports to various parts of the world.
“Café Santo Domingo” is the most popular brand on the island and represents 85% of the local market sales. Its strong flavor satisfies both Dominican and European palates.
The Dominican Republic is number one in the world in volume of cultivation of tobacco leaves. More than 600,000 acres are dedicated to tobacco plantations throughout the Cibao Valley and represented by many different brands. The leaves are cultivated from Cuban seeds by experts trained in Cuba and have been improved so much in the last few years that today they compete with the best Cuban brands, although the supremacy of the Habano is unquestionable.
Dominican cigars are the most popular in the United States and their principal qualities are excellent burning, a pleasant aroma and smooth taste, the result of the combination of different types of tobacco leaves, the majority from the Dominican Republic. Nonetheless, the outer wrapper leaf is usually from Connecticut and Cameron. Although it is not as strong or spicy as the Cuban variety, the full flavor of Dominican tobacco has allowed for new mixes of fillers, more attractive and adapted to all tastes.
The prestigious Davidoff brand, recognized worldwide for its consistent and excellent elaboration, began production in the Dominican Republic in 1990.
Other brands of outstanding quality and prestige are Arturo Fuentes and León Jiménes. It is important to make your purchases in recognized establishments because there are many imitations and counterfeits.
Given the fact that the Dominican Republic is primarily an agricultural and cattle raising country, it offers a great variety of attractive dishes through which are blended the Taino, European and African influences which offer an explosion of rich flavors in combinations and condiments. The key ingredients in its gastronomy are rice, green and ripe plantains, cassava, batata (a tropical sweet potato), avocado, beans, and beef, chicken, pork and goat meat. We can not forget the salads and excellent tropical fruits like mango, sweet pineapple, melons and more.
Being surrounded by the sea, its cuisine consists of fish and seafood, such as dorado and red snapper, shrimp, and Caribbean lobsters.
Beginning with breakfast, the typical plate is mangú, a mixture of boiled, mashed plantains and butter with sautéed onions on top; and fried eggs and fried cheese or Dominican style salami on the side.
For lunch most Dominicans are loyal to what is called the “Dominican Flag” (symbol of Dominican culture) which consists of rice, beans and meat, also accompanied by “tostones” (fried plantains) and a bit of vegetable salad. It is a complete meal rich in vitamins and ensures an energy source for the rest of the day. It is without a doubt the day’s most important meal and is served between noon and 1 PM.
Another popular dish is “sancocho”, a Spanish style stew with great consistency. It contains a number of basic foodstuffs (cassava, plantains, and specific tropical root crops) and various meats of choice. It is usually served with white rice and native avocado as a side dish.
Rice is the main dish everyday throughout the year and it is prepared in various forms. In addition to white rice and beans, other typical dishes are “locrio”, rice cooked with Dominican style sausage, chicken, shrimp or vegetables; “moro”, rice cooked with red or black beans or pigeon peas; or “asopao”, a wet rice dish with the ingredient of choice.
In the case of meats there are two that stand out about the rest: “puerco a la pulla”, an entire pig on a pole and roasted over a wood fire, and “chivo liniero”, the stewed meat of goats raised in northwest of the country and whose particularity is that they feed on wild oregano plants that give the meat an exquisite taste.
Because the fish is from warm waters it is not very juicy and is often cooked with some sort of sauce and often in coconut milk. Pescado en salsa de coco (fish in coconut sau
Baseball, or pelota (ball) as Dominicans usually call it, is the national sport. Due to the climate of the country it is played throughout the year on the amateur level, but the official season of the professional teams is in fall/winter (October through February). It is in this season when the professional players in the international leagues may participate on the local level. The country has excellent players in Major League Baseball, such as Alex Rodríguez, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martínez, Manny Ramírez, Miguel Tejada, and David Ortiz and the immortals, Sammy Sosa and Juan Marichal.
Presently there are six professional teams in the country. Aguilas Cibaeñas (Cibaeñan Eagles), from Santiago de los Caballeros Leones del Escogido (Lions of Escogido), from Santo Domingo Tigres del Licey (Tigers of Licey), from Santo Domingo Estrellas Orientales (Eastern Stars), from San Pedro de Macorís Gigantes del Cibao (Giants of the Cibao) from San Francisco de Macorís Azucareros del Este (Sugarworkers of the East), from La Romana
But other sports such as volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball, are commonly played. For many years volleyball was the number two sport in the country because it could be played in simple facilities. The first international successes, after baseball, were accomplished in this sport.
As sports complexes were developed, mostly in the larger cities of the country, other sports began to develop and some have reached quality level on the international stage. Basketball is a case in point. A number of Dominican born and Dominican American players are active stars in the NBA: Al Horford, Francisco García and Charlie Villanueva.
The Europeans, especially the Spaniards, brought soccer to the Dominican Republic, just as they introduced it in other countries of the New World. Although the level of soccer played in the country is not comparable to that of other countries in the region, it is slowly improving and now there are Dominican players in the leagues of other countries.
The open water swimmer, Marcos Díaz, is another national hero. In 2005 he broke the world record crossing the Straits of Gilbraltar twice in 8 hours and 34 minutes and recently he completed two laps of the island of Manhattan (close to 100 kms or 64 miles), remaining in the water for more than 20 hours. The runner, Félix Sánchez, winner of the 400 meter hurdles at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, is another luminary of Dominican spo
The list of Dominican celebrities has been headed for years by the haute fashion designer, Oscar de la Renta, the singer and composer, Juan Luís Guerra, and the explosive baseball player, Sammy Sosa.
In addition to countless numbers of baseball players, merengue and bachata musicians that would have to be added to this list, it is appropriate to also recognize personalities such as the pianist Michel Camilo, Martha Heredia the winner of Latin American Idol, 2009, the actress and television host, Charytin, “la rubia de América” (America’s Blonde), Miss Universe, Amelia Vega and the young Hollywood actresses, Zoé Saldaña (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Dania Ramírez and Omahyra Mota (XMEN 3).